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From the archives — James A. Haught: Science reveals the code of the universe

This essay appeared in The Humanist magazine, September/October 1988, and was reprinted in Haught’s 2007 book, Honest Doubt.)

By James A. Haught


James A. Haught
Code of the universe

id you know that Albert Einstein, although Jewish, went through a brief childhood phase of devout Christianity?

In an autobiographical sketch written at age 67, he described his short-lived faith, planted in him by daily indoctrination at a Catholic school to which his parents had sent him:

“Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the bible could not be true.

“The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies. It was a crushing impression.

“Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment — an attitude which has never left me, even though later on, because of a better insight into the causal connections, it lost some of its original poignancy.

“It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation. . .

“The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise, but it has proved itself as trustworthy, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”

Commenting on Einstein’s reminiscence, physicist Heinz Pagels wrote:

“What this passage reveals is a conversion from personal religion to the ‘cosmic religion’ of science, an experience which changed him for the rest of his life. Einstein saw that the universe is governed by laws that can be known by us but that are independent of our thoughts and feelings.

“The existence of this cosmic code — the laws of material reality as confirmed by experience — is the bedrock faith that moves the natural scientist. The scientist sees in that code the eternal structure of reality, not as imposed by man or tradition but as written into the very substance of the universe. This recognition of the nature of the universe can come as a profound and moving experience to the young mind.”

Pondering the universe

Looking into the soul of the universe isn’t just for world-class physicists. It can happen to anyone who ponders the awesome discoveries of science, from quarks to quasars.

When I was a farm boy in rural West Virginia, my grandfather taught me the orbits of Earth and the moon, and I thought it was utterly amazing that these colossal balls weighing quintillions of tons whirled and circled and rolled forever in open space — and that we live on one of them.

When I studied chemistry in high school and learned the combining valences of atoms, I thought it was utterly amazing that this hidden code governs virtually all matter — Earth and the moon, our bodies, trees, water, air. How could atoms lock together into substances because of gaps in their outer layers of electrons — electrons eternally streaking at nearly the speed of light?

Why do the mysterious electrical parts of atoms whirl forever, like the planets and stars?

Why do electrically neutral atoms seize onto each other, just because their outer electrons lack the magic number of eight?

Why do they turn into remarkably different things as they combine? Hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are nothing like water, yet they constitute it. Some carbon atoms lock in tetrahedrons to become diamonds; others lock in layers of six-sided carbon rings to become graphite pencil lead.

Why do atoms link into carbon-based molecules that link into amino acids that link into proteins that link into living cells as complex as whole cities — and why does all this link into a thinking, feeling, loving, fearing, aging, dying human?

How can a combination of amino acids write a symphony or join the Republican party or commit stock fraud or feel patriotism for a section of Earth likewise composed of molecules?

The old “planetary” model of the atom was envisioned like a solar system — orbits around a nucleus. This raised a far-out theory that our solar system might be an atom in some stupefyingly larger universe, and that our atoms might be tiny solar systems with people living on some of the particles. I first encountered this idea in a Captain Marvel comic book.

The great astronomer Harlow Shapley once gave a talk at West Virginia State University. I hung around afterward and asked him, “What’s the name of the theory that atoms might be solar systems?” He looked at me and said, “The name of it is damn nonsense.” I later learned that it’s called the subatomic universe theory — but Shapley’s name probably is better.

Astonishing truths

During this period, when I was muddling over the boggling impossibilities that science revealed, I started reading books on Einstein and relativity, and found that his scientific truth was even more astonishing. What our common sense tells us is real can’t be real if space shrinks to nonexistence or time runs slower and stops under some conditions.

I hatched mental experiments that short-circuited my brain. For example, Einstein says the speed of light is the great constant of the universe — nothing can go faster. He also says all speeds are relative between moving objects. Well, if you strike a match, photons of visible light fly out in all directions. If one photon is going west at the speed of light and another is going east at the speed of light, how fast are they separating from each other?

It gets even worse when you read quantum physics. The more I studied, the more I developed an eerie sense that the world we think we inhabit and all existing things are some sort of fiction.

For example, take steel. It can be a 100-foot bridge girder or it can be the coil of a bass piano string, a long wire spiraled into a hard spring. All the curves of that spring are composed of iron atoms locked rigidly to each other in a strong crystal lattice that is nearly unbreakable.

And yet, those atoms are basically empty. They are a void of unknowable electrical charges, which don’t actually touch each other. They are virtually a vacuum. They are as empty as the solar system. If you look at the night sky and see how remote the planets are, that’s how remote the parts of an atom are from each other.

If an atom were the size of a 14-story building, the nucleus would be a grain of salt in the middle of the seventh floor, too tiny to be seen. Therefore, heavy, rigid steel doesn’t exist the way we think it does. It’s 99.999999 percent vacuum — as vacant as the night sky.

Sometimes I picture atoms as soap bubbles: empty but bumping against each other and sticking together. The buzzing outer electrons are negative, and they repel the negative electron clouds of adjoining atoms. This holds the atoms apart and gives them an illusion of solidity. Yet, they are bound to each other by valence bonds and hydrogen bonds and Van der Waals bonds and other electrical links.

Atom emptiness is the key to white dwarfs, pulsars and black holes.

At the end of their life cycles, stars explode. Then, what’s left of them collapses, and gravity pulls the collapsing material into incredible density. If the residue is small, compressed electrons in the seething stellar plasma of crushed atoms push back fiercely and resist further collapse. This produces a white dwarf that is nearly impossible to comprehend. The material of a white dwarf weighs around 10 tons per thimbleful. How could something the size of a thimble be so heavy that 100 strong men couldn’t lift it? It might crush a house. A large crane would be required to pick it up.

But that’s just the first step in removing the empty space inside atoms. A teenage genius, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, computed that, if a collapsing star has 1.4 times the mass of our sun, its gravity would be too great to be stopped by the resistance of the electrons. He didn’t know it, but he was predicting pulsars, or neutron stars, which later were discovered. Their enormous gravity squeezes the electrons into the nucleus of each atom, where they merge with protons to form a solid mass of neutrons. This material weighs about 10 million tons per cubic centimeter. A cc is the size of a bouillon cube. Can you imagine a bouillon cube weighing more than the World Trade Center? But that’s what matter is when the empty space is removed between the nucleus and the electrons of atoms.

If 10 million tons of actual substance is the size of a bouillon cube, how much real material is in a 180-pound man or a 120-pound woman? Not as much as a dust speck. Not enough to see with a microscope. Our 5-foot or 6-foot bodies, like all material things, are an illusion made of vacuum and whirling electrical charges.

It gets worse. Even the packed neutrons in a pulsar are not basic material. They, too, are empty and compressible. If the remains of a collapsing star are 3.2 times larger than our sun, the gravity is too strong to be checked at the pulsar level. The collapse continues until it passes the point of no return — the Schwarzchild Radius — and becomes a black hole, the ultimate pit of gravity, where everything is compressed to nothing.

If planet Earth were squeezed to its Schwarzchild Radius, it would be the size of a pearl. Can anyone imagine the matter of the entire Earth being reduced to fingernail size — but retaining all its weight — and continuing to shrink beyond that point?

This isn’t Captain Marvel comics. Pulsars are real. So are black holes, the astrophysicists say. If they are actuality, then what is our everyday world?

The nonreality of matter is just one of many enigmas that science reveals. Consider these:

• As we lie “still” in bed, we are flying 67,000 miles an hour around the sun and 600,000 miles an hour around the Milky Way galaxy.

• When we see the North Star, we are looking back in time to the medieval era, because the light we see began traveling 680 years ago.

• Every second, the visible universe expands by a volume as large as the Milky Way.

• Peaceful atoms of rock, lying still for centuries, have a power in their nuclei that is beyond comprehension: Only as much matter as a dime was transformed into the energy that destroyed Hiroshima and killed 140,000 people.

• The smallness of atoms likewise is beyond grasping: A cubic inch of air contains 300 billion billion molecules, all moving at 1,000 miles an hour and hitting each other 5 billion times a second.

• Although atoms are generally indestructible, their electrons keep coming loose to produce lightning and the other electricity of the world.

• The light we see, the sun warmth we feel, the radio and television signals we receive, the X-rays we use — all of these come from electrons. Electromagnetic radiation is emitted by excited electrons oscillating or dropping to lower layers in atoms.

• Most life on Earth comes from a tiny electric current: When sunlight hits chlorophyll molecules, excited outer electrons jump through a mosaic of molecules, and this energy drives plant processes.

• As for the DNA that conveys our genetic code, there is six feet of it inside each cell or our bodies. The body has more than 10 trillion cells, so every person contains several billion miles of DNA.

• The “spin” of electrons is so powerful it can suspend railway locomotives in the air (in “maglev,” or magnetic levitation, trains). Electrons of most atoms are in balanced pairs with opposite spin, so the atoms have no magnetism. But ferrous atoms have a few electrons that aren’t balanced, giving each atom a magnetic field. When an electrical current induces all the atoms in a piece of iron to align their polarity in unison, a strong electromagnet is created.

These amazing realities are profoundly important, yet when I try to discuss science with my chums in the news business or music circles or political groups, they look at me as if I’m babbling in the Unknown Tongue. They are highly educated people who know multitudes of facts, but they shrug at what I think are the most crucial facts of all.

If religion and philosophy are an attempt to comprehend the universe and the meaning of life, then science is the best portal. Every time I learn another rule of subatomic forces or cell behavior or galactic motion, I get an eerie sense of glimpsing the mysterious code underlying our existence. Physicists often apply the word God to this order, but they don’t mean God in the church sense.

In a world of supernatural religions, mystical religions, guilt-based religions, violent religions, money-collecting religions, social club religions and cult religions, grasping the code of the universe is the most religious experience I know.

James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.